Working as a Rape Response volunteer, Katiee McKinstry spent time at the hospital with a sexual assault survivor during a forensic exam that can usually last three hours.
The conversation drifted away from the subject at hand to a discussion of pets and school.
As McKinstry started to leave, the survivor reached out and hugged her as if they had been lifelong friends.
“I’m walking away from this person. I will probably never see her again, but she could be my very best friend after this day,” she said. “And I think that was the hardest realization for me, because I was like, wow, she impacted me as much as I did her.”
McKinstry and others volunteer at the Gainesville organization, answering calls on a crisis line and accompanying survivors at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
“For me, it helps me keep things in perspective and realize there are bigger things out there than me,” volunteer Angela Slay said, adding the work helps survivors “find their voice.”
Rape Response serves Hall County in addition to Dawson, Forsyth, Habersham, Lumpkin and White counties.
“As we’ve been building, people get more trust in Rape Response and they feel more comfortable coming,” treasurer Jeremy Perry said.
At the Oak Street facility, the volunteers found their way through varying avenues. McKinstry is a University of North Georgia student, while fellow volunteer Ginger Imperiale discovered the group through church.
Slay, who works in bank security, said her interest in volunteering came from raising four girls.
“That’s my whole reason for volunteering with Rape Response is because I would want someone to be there for them in that situation,” she said.
Volunteers are on-call to answer calls and go to the hospital for a set period of time during the week or on the weekend.
After decades in the field of gender studies, volunteer and Brenau professor Heather Hollimon said she is disappointed that survivors will still “feel a sense of shame or try to hide.”
“We know that it’s not somebody’s fault. But the initial reaction because of the culture in which we live that it is still somebody’s fault,” Hollimon said. “So when you go, you make sure that you understand that the women are still vulnerable and that there’s still the shame that they don’t want other people to know.”
When working in an environment filled with law enforcement investigators and hospital staff, Slay said volunteers stay open-minded and flexible when providing a need “that no one else can fill for them at that moment in time.”
“You have to be strong for that person, but they also need to be able to see you as yourself — warm, there for them and caring,” Slay said.
Some volunteers don’t sleep well on the nights on-call in worrying for an unknown person’s safety, while others pray for the wellbeing of the community.
“I’ve had some cases where I’ve had to be really strong and then just fall apart later with the staff,” Slay said.
After the ER, Rape Response volunteer and direct services coordinator Gale Adams said the staff will follow up with survivors and “forge a relationship” if the survivor chooses.
“Being part of this community and this building is such a big deal. I always leave here feeling like there are good people here,” McKinster said. There are great people that are fighting for other people, and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.”